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Emily Dickinson's "Success is counted sweetest"

Updated on April 14, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson Commemorative Stamp

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Success is counted sweetest"

Emily Dickinson's "Success is counted sweetest" is dramatized in three riming stanzas, ABCB, a traditional form often employed by this unique poet. The theme of this masterpiece asserts that success is more important to those who have never tasted that commodity, yet not so much to those who have. Losers and winners of the world then seem to go about in differing states of emotion.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Success is counted sweetest

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

As he defeated — dying —
On whose forbidden earn
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

Reading of "Success is counted sweetest"

Emily Dickinson

Circa age 17, daguerreotype of the poet
Circa age 17, daguerreotype of the poet | Source

Commentary

Observing life through her unique lens, Emily Dickinson often constructed strange worlds where things often turned out to be exactly as she bizarrely described them.

First Stanza: The Unsuccessful Hungering

Success is counted sweetest
By those who ne'er succeed.
To comprehend a nectar
Requires sorest need.

The first stanza opens with the speaker declaring that it is only those who have never been successful that possess the notion that success is always so great or is the "sweetest" state of awareness. The unsuccessful, it seems, remain the ones who actually hunger most after success. Once the success has been achieved, the goal of achieving success just fades away. In order to comprehend the workings of a desire, one has to possess that desire.

Comprehending a "nectar" requires that the taster possess a "sorest need." Just a fading wish is not enough. The desired object must appear to the one who desires it with great intensity. From classical mythology, the term "nectar" represented the drink given by the gods to foster life.

The object sought must therefore be one of intense desirability and interest to the seeker. The sweetness of nectar can be alluring to almost anyone, but it becomes especially important to the one who has sought but never attained it.

Second Stanza: A Field of Victory

Not one of all the purple Host
Who took the Flag today
Can tell the definition
So clear of Victory

The second stanza features the speaker portraying some field of victory as one might encounter in a field game like football, soccer, or hockey. It is likely that winners may not be able to delineate what true victory is.

The winning "Purple Host" cannot refer to a Civil War battle as some have asserted. Dickinson actually wrote this poem in 1859 before the Civil War began. Her use of "Purple Host" incorporates an exaggerated metaphor of the defeated as "dying"—which spills into the third stanza.

Third Stanza: The Clear Comprehension of Loss

As he defeated — dying —
On whose forbidden earn
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear!

The beginning of the second stanza featured the victors not comprehending their victory, and the final stanza completes the reasoning behind that claim. The defeated comprehend very clearly what they have lost. They understand their lot far better than the winners understand theirs.

By exaggerating the condition of the loser, calling them the "dying," the speaker merely refers to the suffering they endure because of their defeat. It is likely that terms such defeat and dying account for the misinterpretation as a war poem. The losers' "forbidden ear" will hear quite clearly the adulation given the winners, and that state of affairs will account for their intense suffering and deep desire to win the next time they engage in the endeavor.

While the winners will merely bask in the glow of their victory, the losers will feel deeply that the success that eluded them must be the sweetest nectar they can imagine. They can only imagine it, for when they hear "distant strains of triumph," they ache that those strains are not for them.

Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Submit a Comment

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    2 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Stella. Dickinson wrote so many fine poems. Glad you like my commentary about this one. Have a blessed day!

  • ladyguitarpicker profile image

    stella vadakin 

    2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

    Thank you, I loved this and it is really explained so good. I missed alot in life but this is great. Stella

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